Virgin Orbit’s 747 has taken off from Cornwall in the UK as it prepares to fire a rocket into space carrying small satellites.
It marks the company’s first commercial launch outside its Mojave base in California and comes before it plans a demonstrator launch at Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport in 2024.
Australian Aviation took an exclusive look at Virgin Orbit’s plan in our latest issue, which includes an interview with CEO Dan Hart. To find out more and subscribe, click here.
Virgin Orbit is the successor to a project begun by Virgin Galactic, and uses a modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft to launch satellites into space from the air.
It works because the 747 has a little-known capacity to attach a fifth engine, enabling it to carry a rocket. After the satellites are fitted underneath the rocket’s nose — or fairing — the projectile is attached underneath the left wing of the Jumbo Jet. The aircraft takes off and cruises upwards to its launch position at around 35,000 feet.
“The pilot then pulls up on the 747 to a 30-degree angle because we want the rocket facing the right direction, and we want a bit of upward pitch,” Hart told Australian Aviation.
“The other pilot, at the right moment, pushes a button on the panel of the cockpit to release the rocket, which drops — or glides — for about four or five seconds until it’s safely able to start its engines.”
Seconds afterwards, the 747 banks right to stay clear of the rocket’s path.
The 747 is only minimally modified. The first jumbo Virgin is using, now named Cosmic Girl, enjoyed a 14-year career with Atlantic as G-VWOW, where it carried more than two million passengers, mainly from London to New York.
Melissa Thorpe, the head of Spaceport Cornwall, said before the launch, “I hope people will feel some inspiration, some aspiration, and feel proud of how we are representing Cornwall going to the stars. There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there. It’s exciting, different. It’s also a bit of an underdog story.”
Minutes after take-off, British Science Minister George Freeman called the launch a “historic moment” and declared the UK had “won the space race in Europe”.
Australian Aviation reported in September how Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport would soon be home to Virgin Orbit launches.
The business signed an MOU with Australian infrastructure development company Wagner Corporation that will see it conduct a “demonstrator” launch in 2024.
Permanent blast-offs are set to occur within three years.
Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport was chosen by Virgin Orbit due to its ideal geographical conditions for satellite launches. Many locations within Australia are appealing launch destinations due to the available orbits that can be reached from the continent.
Plans for a launch within the next 18 months are already underway, according to Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.
“My government is committed to working with both companies in their bid to certify Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport as a national spaceport for the orbital launch demonstration,” she said.
The Toowoomba Airport Aerospace and Defence Precinct is set to become a growing hub for the aviation and space industry, with Boeing announcing it would construct a UAV production facility at the airport.